Paul Ricoeur’s Case for Hermeneutics Against Symbolic Logic
Reproduced from a Print Copy, and Posted by Cain Pinto
*This excerpt is taken in entirety from Paul Ricoeur’s magisterial Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation (1970).
…what advantages can the hermeneutician adduce when faced with formal logic? To the artificiality of logical symbols, which can be written and read but not spoken he will oppose an essentially oral symbolism, in each instance received and accepted as a heritage. The man who speaks in symbols is first of all a narrator; he transmits an abundance of meaning over which he has little command. This abundance, this density of manifold meaning, is what gives him food for thought and solicits his understanding; interpretation consists less is suppressing ambiguity than in understanding it and explicating its richness. It may also be said that logical symbolism is empty, whereas symbolism in hermeneutics is full; it renders manifest the double meaning of worldly or psychical reality…[S]ymbols are bound: the sensible sign is bound by the symbolic meaning that dwells in it and gives it transparency and lightness; the symbolic meaning is in turn bound to its sensible vehicle, which gives it weight and opacity. One might add that this is also the way symbols bind us, viz. by giving thought a content, a flesh, a density.
These distinctions and oppositions are not false; they are merely unfounded. A confrontation which restricts itself to the symbolic texture of symbols and does not face up to the question of their foundation in reflection will soon prove embarrassing to the advocate of hermeneutics. For the artificiality and emptiness of logical symbolism are simply the counterpart and condition of the true aim of this logic, viz. to guarantee the nonambiguity of arguments; what the hermeneutician calls double meaning is, in logical terms, ambiguity, i.e. equivocity of words and amphiboly of statements. A peaceful juxtaposition of hermeneutics and symbolic logic is therefore impossible; symbolic logic quickly makes any lazy compromise untenable. Its very “intolerance” forces hermeneutics to radically justify its own language.
We must therefore understand this intolerance in order to arrive a contrario at the foundation of hermeneutics.
If the rigour of symbolic logic seems more exclusive than that of traditional formal logic, the reason is that symbolic logic is not a simple prolongation of the earlier logic. It does not represent a higher degree of formalization; it proceeds from a global decision concerning ordinary language, the amphibolous character of its construction, the confusion inherent in metaphor and idiomatic expressions, the emotional resonance of highly descriptive language. Symbolic logic despairs of natural language precisely at the point where hermeneutics believes in its implicit “wisdom”.
This struggle begins with the exclusion from the properly cognitive sphere of all language that does not give factual information. The rest of discourse is classified under the heading of emotive and horatory functions of language; that which does not give factual information expresses emotions, feelings or attitudes, or urges others to behave in some particular way.
Reduced thus to the informative function, language still has to be divested of the equivocity of words and the amphiboly of grammatical constructions; verbal ambiguity must be unmasked so as to eliminate it from arguments and to employ coherently the same words in the same sense within the same argument. The function of definitions that succeed in doing this are scientific ones. These are not content with pointing out the meaning of words already have in usage, independently of their definition; instead they very strictly characterise an object in light of a scientific theory (for example, the definition of force as the product of mass and acceleration in the context of Newtonian theory).
But symbolic logic goes further. For it, the price of univocity is the creation of a symbolism with no ties to natural to language. This notion of a symbol excludes the other notion of symbol. The recourse to a completely artificial symbolism introduces in a logic a difference not only of degree but also of nature; the symbols of the logician intervene precisely at the point where arguments of classical logic, formulated in ordinary language, run into an invincible and, in a way, residual ambiguity. Thus the logical disjunction sign ∨ eliminates the ambiguity of words that express disjunction in ordinary language (Eng., or; Ger., oder; Fr., ou); ∨ expresses only the particular meaning common to the inclusive disjunction (the sense of the Latin vel) according to which at least one is false; ∨ resolves the ambiguity by formulating the inclusive disjunction as the part common to the two modes of disjunction. Likewise the symbol ⊃ resolves the ambiguity inherent in the notion of implication (which may denote formal implication, either logical, definitional, or causal); the symbol ⊃ formulates the common partial meaning, namely, that any hypothetical statement with a true antecedent and a false consequent must be false; the symbol is thus an abbreviation of a longer symbolism which expresses the negation of the conjunction of the truth value of the antecedent and the falsity of the consequent: ∼ (p. ∼ q).
Thus the artificial language of logical symbolism enables one to determine the validity of arguments in all cases where a residual ambiguity can be ascribed to the structure of ordinary language. The precise point where symbolic logic cuts across and contests hermeneutics, therefore, is this: verbal equivocity and syntactical amphiboly—in short, the ambiguity of ordinary language—can be overcome only at the level of a language whose symbols have a meaning completely determined by the truth table whose construction they allow. Thus the sense of the symbol ∨ is completely determined by its truth function, inasmuch as it serves to safeguard the validity of the disjunctive syllogism; likewise the sense of the symbol ⊃ completely exhausts its meaning in the construction of the truth table of the hypothetical syllogism. These constructions guarantee that the symbols are completely unambiguous, while the nonambiguity of the symbols assures the universal validity of arguments.
As long as the logic of multiple meaning is not guaranteed in this reflective function, it necessarily falls under the blows of formal and symbolic logic. In the eyes of the logician, hermeneutics will always be suspected of fostering a culpable complacency toward equivocal meanings, of surreptitiously giving an informative function to expressions that have merely an emotive or horatory function. Hermeneutics thus falls under the fallacies of relevance which a sound logic denounces.
The only thing that can come to the aid of equivocal expressions and truly ground a logic of double meaning is the problematic of reflection. The only thing that can justify equivocal expressions is their a priori role in the movement of self-appropriation by self which constitutes reflective activity. This a priori function pertains not to a formal but to a transcendental logic, if by transcendental logic is meant the establishing of the conditions of possibility of a domain of objectivity in general. The task of such a logic is to extricate by a regressive method the notions presupposed in the constitution of a type of experience and a corresponding type of reality. Transcendental logic is not exhausted in the Kantian a priori. The connection we have established between reflection upon the I think, I am qua act, and the signs scattered in the various cultures of that act of existing, opens up a new field of experience, objectivity, and reality. This is the field to which the logic of double meaning pertains—a logic we have qualified above as complex but not arbitrary, and rigorous in its articulations. The principle of limitation to the demands of symbolic logic lies in the structure of reflection itself. If there is no such thing as the transcendental, there is no reply to the intolerance of symbolic logic; but if the transcendental is an authentic dimension of discourse, then new force is found in the reasons that can be opposed to the requirement of logicism that all discourse be measured by its treatise of arguments. These reasons, which seemed to us to be left hanging in the air for want of a foundation, are as follows:
- The requirement of univocity holds only for discourse that presents itself as argument: but reflection does not argue, it draws no conclusion, it neither deduces or induces; it states the conditions of possibility whereby empirical consciousness can be made equal to thetic consciousness. Hence, “equivocal” applies only to those expressions that ought to be univocal in the course of a single “argument” but are not; in the reflective use of multiple-meaning symbols there is no fallacy of ambiguity: to reflect upon these symbols and to interpret them is one and the same act.
- The understanding developed by reflection upon symbols is not a weak substitute for definition, for reflection is not a type of thinking that defines and thinks according to “classes.” This brings us back to the Aristotelian problem of the “many meanings of being.” Aristotle was the first to see clearly that philosophical discourse is not subject to the logical alternative of univocal-equivocal, for being is not a “genus”
; and yet, being is said; but it “is said in many ways”.
- Let us go back to the very first alternative considered above: a statement that does not give factual information, we said, expresses only the emotions or attitudes of a subject. Reflection, however, falls outside this alternative; that which makes possible the appropriation of the I think, I am is neither the empirical statement not the emotive statement, but something other than either of these.
This case for interpretation rests entirely on the reflective function of interpretative thought. If the double movement of symbols towards reflection and of reflection towards symbols is valid, interpretative thought is well grounded. Hence it may be said, at least, negatively, that such thought is not measured by a logic of arguments; the validity of philosophical statements cannot be arbitrated by a theory of language conceived as syntax; the semantics of philosophy is not swallowed up by a symbolic logic.
These propositions concerning philosophic discourse do not enable us, however, to say positively what a philosophical statement is; such an affirmation could be fully justified only by its actually being said. At least we can affirm that the indirect, symbolic language of reflection can be valid, not because it is equivocal, but in spite of its being equivocal”.
Paul Ricoeur. Trans. Denis Savage. “Book I. Problematic: Reflection and Equivocal Language”. Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation. New Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, 1970. P. 47- 54
Posted on February 8, 2013, in conservatism, Education, Ethics, Humanism, ideology, Logic, Polemics, Science, Skepticism, Statistics, Technology, Uncategorized and tagged Cogito, Descartes, Empiricism, Evidence, Formal Logic, Freud, Hermeneutics, Kantianism, Logic, Paul Ricoeur, philosophy, Positivism, Reflection, symbolic Logic. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.